Sunday, May 26, 2024

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA Salary Outrage: Basketball’s Superstar Earns 2% of NBA Median

HomeSports NewsCaitlin Clark's WNBA Salary Outrage: Basketball's Superstar Earns 2% of NBA Median


The unveiling of Caitlin Clark’s contract has sparked a firestorm, reigniting the discourse on pay disparities between male and female athletes. But is this tempest merely the harbinger of an incoming tide of change?

The sports world is abuzz with the revelation that Caitlin Clark, the transcendent force in women’s collegiate basketball, will command a mere $338,000 over the next four years in the WNBA. This revelation has ignited a firestorm of opinions, with voices from all quarters decrying the apparent injustice.

“For someone who has become the face of women’s basketball, those numbers – $76,000 in the first year, $78,000 in the second year, $85,000 in the third year – seem almost farcical,” lamented Hoda Kotb of the Today show. Even the notoriously cantankerous Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports, a bastion of unapologetic misogyny, seemed taken aback, offering Clark a staggering $10 million to play for his company’s team. The uproar even reached the highest echelons of power, with President Joe Biden taking to X (formerly Twitter) to declare, “It’s time that we give our daughters the same opportunities as our sons and ensure women are paid what they deserve.”

Clark’s salary is not just a mere fraction of the $55 million that NBA top draft pick Victor Wembanyama will pocket from his rookie contract; it is a paltry 2% of the median NBA salary. Worse still, it’s half of what she could earn working in the WNBA’s events department. The WNBA players’ median salary of $78,000 is a mere drop in the ocean compared to their male counterparts, a chasm that would make even the Grand Canyon blush. At this juncture in the NBA’s evolution – 28 years after its founding – the average player salary hovered around $90,000, or a staggering $633,000 in today’s dollars. Perhaps most galling is the fact that Clark – a once-in-a-generation talent who shattered scoring records with impunity – will earn slightly more in four years than the average male dentist earns in a single year.

This cavernous divide in basketball pay is precisely why so many women are compelled to play overseas during the WNBA offseason – a proposition that has become increasingly perilous in the wake of Brittney Griner’s Russian incarceration and the eruption of conflict in Israel. And yet, for those of us who have witnessed the evolution of the women’s game, from the days when Diana Taurasi, arguably the greatest pro of the past two decades, earned a mere $40,000 (approximately $66,000 in today’s money) in her rookie season with the Phoenix Mercury, and sat out the 2015 season to play in Russia for a cool $1.5 million, Clark’s situation is undeniably a step forward, albeit a tentative one.

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It is worth remembering that the NBA generates far more revenue than the WNBA, a disparity that trickles down to the players’ paychecks. The NBA had a half-century head start on its sister league, an age gap reminiscent of the De Niros and Pacinos of the world attending a birthday bash. In total, the NBA rakes in over $10 billion annually, while the WNBA’s reported annual revenue hovers around $200 million – a mere four times what LeBron James alone pocketed this past season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Paying stars like Clark even a fraction of what top NBA players earn would bankrupt the league faster than a Las Vegas Aces fast break. Part of this revenue disparity stems from the WNBA’s comparatively paltry broadcast rights deal ($65 million this year), an afterthought within the NBA’s total broadcast package despite the WNBA being one of the most prized women’s TV sports properties for much of its history. Ticket revenues also lag far behind, with average WNBA attendance last season at 6,615 compared to 18,324 for the NBA, which also boasts more teams and games.

The WNBA’s revenue distribution model differs markedly from male-dominated US sports leagues. While NBA players receive a 50% cut of revenue, WNBA players are entitled to only half of incremental revenue (the money the league makes beyond its growth targets) and half the revenue from sales of specific players’ jerseys, but only after surpassing set sales targets. Disappointingly, unlike their NBA counterparts, WNBA players do not receive a share of the profits when franchises are sold or when the league attracts outside investment. “I don’t think I should get paid the same as LeBron,” Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum candidly stated in a 2022 podcast interview. “But … for example: they sell my jersey in [Las Vegas hotel] Mandalay Bay, I don’t get a dime.” In a twist of irony, Clark, whose No. 22 Fever jersey is already the top-selling rookie jersey of all time, is already cashing in on merchandising in ways that veterans could scarcely have imagined.

In many ways, the WNBA’s cautious approach is akin to a middle-class individual who grew up in poverty but still pinches pennies to avoid slipping back into destitution. And the league has valid reasons for its prudence after a string of failures among its predecessors. Before then-NBA commissioner David Stern willed “the W” into existence in 1996, a women’s pro league was perhaps the toughest sell in American sports. The Ladies Professional Basketball Association tipped off in 1980 with six teams and folded after a mere month. The Women’s American Basketball Association, another six-team league, expired after the 1984 season – which began with the Dallas Diamonds announcing a three-year, $250,000 contract for Nancy Lieberman, the Caitlin Clark of her era.

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The National Women’s Basketball Association lasted a single season, while the Women’s Basketball Association bucked the trend by lasting three full seasons, perhaps owing to its summer schedule when the NBA was on hiatus. After the Dream Team of USA women conquered gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Stern seized his opportunity. “We are giving life to a concept that has been much discussed, much attempted, but that we feel is now ready to bloom,” he declared. “It’s about time.”

The top players in the inaugural WNBA draft were immensely popular and intensely followed, much like this year’s crop: UConn’s Rebecca Lobo, USC’s Lisa Leslie, and Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes, a one-time Clark critic who became the first women’s basketball player to land a shoe deal with Nike. The WNBA launched with eight teams and grew to 12, with none validating the proof of concept quite like Swoopes’s Houston Comets – winners of the league’s first four championships. When the Comets were dissolved a decade later after the NBA’s Houston Rockets failed to spin off their sister franchise, it upended the WNBA’s patronage-based structure. The Seattle Storm were the outlier, independently operated and woman-owned, but even they would struggle for success despite playing in a fiercely loyal sports city desperate for basketball after the departure of its NBA team.

It is unlikely, however, that the current crop of college stars who follow in Clark’s footsteps – South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley, USC’s JuJu Watkins – will experience the same situation. The WNBA players’ union is expected to opt out of its current agreement with the league at the end of 2025, when the TV rights expire. And given the sharp uptick in ratings for the WNBA and college basketball, coupled with the $240 million the National Women’s Soccer League recently secured for its domestic TV rights, the WNBA is well positioned to command its own price for a standalone deal, separate from the NBA. This, combined with the expansion franchises the league has planned for San Francisco and Toronto over the next two years, will surely bolster the players’ push for a true 50-50 split in revenue – at which point million-dollar salaries could become the norm. These numbers could swell even further if sports betting – for better or worse – becomes a fixture of league revenues.

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Even with the current financial constraints, this year’s rookie class is hardly destitute. Just last week, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert greenlit charter flights for all teams, addressing a longstanding grievance for veterans (often very tall) who have been crammed into commercial planes and nearly forfeited games due to delays. Last month, the Seattle Storm became the second WNBA team to unveil its own state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility – a veritable shrine to its workforce. What’s more, the Storm are emblematic of a league where seven out of twelve teams are independently run, with owners like the Aces’ Mark Davis deeply invested in the sport’s growth. Sponsorships are also emerging as a lucrative revenue stream for the league’s biggest stars. Clark is set to earn a staggering $3 million this year off the court alone, with her reported $28 million Nike deal trailing only those of LeBron James and Kevin Durant in value. Less than a week after Clark followed in Swoopes’s footsteps, two-time reigning league champion and MVP A’ja Wilson announced her own Nike deal.

Yes, Clark’s compensation may pale in comparison to the ideals of gender equity in sport and broader labor relations. Given her transcendent play, magnetic personality, and undeniable box office draw, there is no question that she deserves far more. The same argument could be made for her collegiate rival Angel Reese, the LSU star turned Met Gala darling who helped Clark create this historic demand for women’s basketball, and the many dynamic veterans who continue to make the league a premier attraction.

Yet, women’s basketball is evolving, and at a promising pace. If the present trajectory continues, it won’t be long before WNBA salaries reach a point where, at last, when stars get their teeth fixed, they will be earning far more than the men who might treat them. This tempestuous debate may be the harbinger of an incoming tide of change, a pivotal moment in the relentless pursuit of equity on and off the court.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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